Fictional Journalism for Dummies
CNN and Time have both commissioned investigations into the question of whether they may have jointly put out a false story three weeks ago. It’s hard to know what there is to investigate. The story (reported and broadcast by CNN, with a version published in Time) contained two hot allegations: that the United States used fatal nerve gas (sarin) on a village in Laos during the Vietnam War and that the purpose was to kill a large number of American defectors. Both were almost instantly and pretty spectacularly discredited.
As Cyrus Krohn of Slate reported the day after Time’s story appeared, the story’s main cited source published a memoir 15 years ago that describes the Laos raid in detail–but mentions nothing about nerve gas or American defectors. This former soldier subsequently explained that he had blocked the memory until it suddenly resurfaced during his interview with the reporter from CNN (a little detail both Time and CNN failed to note in their respective reports). Other alleged sources now claim to have specifically denied the allegations. Many other sources have come forward to say the story is false. Various implausible elements of the story have been noted. (For example, if American soldiers were exposed to fatal nerve gas, why did none die?)
But you almost don’t have to go beyond the story itself to strongly suspect it’s false. The signs of comic overreaching, at the very least, are right there. In these days when making up stories is so fashionable among journalists, many younger readers of Slate may wish to try it themselves. Slate’s Krohn, of course, is a trained professional, equipped with the advanced journalistic tools of cynicism, suspicion, and heartlessness. He is equally adept (as we all are in this profession, though we don’t like to brag about it) at making up stories and spotting those made up by others. Even amateurs, though, can learn how to make up a pretty convincing story in the comfort of their own homes, using nothing more than a mild sense of mischief and a decent word processor. (We recommend Word 97 for Windows.)
Pending the results of all these investigations, we’re not saying the CNN report was fabricated. But it is nevertheless a useful illustration of a few techniques that need to be mastered by anyone wishing to fabricate a news story:
Bootstrap sourcing. Near the top of the Time version, the story says that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the time, Adm. Thomas Moorer, “confirmed the use of sarin in the Laotian operation.” Further down: “Confirming the use of sarin, Moorer says the gas was ‘by and large available.’ ” And finally: “Concludes Moorer: ‘This is a much bigger operation than you realize.’ ” Thus “available” is bootstrapped into “used” and “used” into “used in Laos,” while “used in Laos in this particular operation” sneaks through by implication, all buttressed by the empty assertion that “this”–what?–is bigger than you realize. Moorer’s subsequent denial that he meant to endorse the sarin/defectors charge is not surprising (though the fact–which CNN/Time also failed to mention–that he is 87 and not in top mental condition is suggestive).
Double bootstrap sourcing; sources of nothing. The secretary of defense at the time, Melvin Laird, is quoted as having “no specific recollection” of sarin being used, but “I do not dispute what Adm. Moorer has to say on this matter.” If he has no recollection of the matter, he obviously is in no position to dispute what anyone has to say about it. His statement to that effect has no evidentiary value, but it is cited as implicit confirmation. (Elsewhere an “Air Force ‘ratpack’ commando”–an impressive but unexplained label–is quoted as saying, “I believed that these were American defectors.” No surprise that he turns out to have been far away and says he was only “speculating.”)
Heavy-handed seasoning with overheated quotes. This is a useful way to distract the reader’s attention from gaps in logic and evidence, just as curry and spices were once used to make bad meat palatable. “I just went ‘oh, man’ and knew we were in for some really deep s___.” Or, “It was a hairy situation from the time we got there.” As a bonus, those quoted seem to be endorsing the thesis, though that doesn’t logically follow (and several of those quoted have subsequently denied it).
Pointless detail. ” ‘There were more defectors than people realize,’ says an SOG veteran at Fort Bragg.’ ” SOG is the acronym for the group that conducted the raid in question. But how does an unnamed person, whose qualifications to opine on the subject are not offered, gain added credibility by being “at Fort Bragg” three decades after the event in question?
Self-contradiction; fuzzy verb forms; anonymous quotes. “No definitive number of Americans who went over to the enemy is available, but Moorer indicated there were scores. Another SOG veteran put the number at close to 300. The Pentagon told Newsstand: CNN & Time that there were only two known military defectors during the Vietnam war.”
1) In other words, there is a definitive number, according to the Pentagon. That number is two. Or two “known” defectors. Does the Pentagon believe there are unknown defectors? We are not told. But apparently “no definitive number … is available” only in the sense that the article doesn’t accept the number that is available–thus using its own doubts to lend validity to themselves.
2) Moore “indicated.” How? By sign language? Charades? Semaphore? “Indicated” is a way of implying he said it while indicating he must not have actually said it. (As, it seems, he didn’t.)
3) “Another SOG veteran” makes the highest bid of “close to 300.” Why would a veteran of this one unit have any basis for knowing the total number of defectors in the entire Vietnam war? Who is he, and why does he need to be anonymous? Never mind. He’s a veteran, isn’t he?
Using these eight simple techniques, you can fabricate a news story in the comfort of your own home. No longer is there any need to spend 50 cents on a newspaper or $3.95 on a magazine–or even to turn on the television! Start with something plausible–say, a new woman claiming to have had an adventure with the president–and work your way up to the outbreaks of major wars, visits by extraterrestrials, people who actually believe a browser shouldn’t be integrated into the operating system, and similar hard-to-believe phenomena. You’ll be a pro.
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